Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Black executives call on corporate America to stand up for voting rights, H&M’s new CEO had a rough first year, and Apple’s Siri will no longer default to a female voice. Stay alert this April Fools’ Day!
– Voice over. Ever since Apple debuted its virtual assistant Siri in 2011, the bot’s voice has defaulted to a woman’s in the U.S. After ten years, that’s finally going to change.
Apply announced yesterday that starting this spring, users will be asked to select a voice from four choices when they set up Siri in their phone’s operating system.
The tech giant says the move reflects its “long-standing” commitment to diversity and inclusion and to products and services that “are designed to better reflect the diversity of the world we live in.” That’s a nice statement, but Apple didn’t exactly tackle the issue of Siri’s gender with an obvious sense of urgency despite early criticism, and it has overlooked women’s needs in the past, like initially omitting a period-tracking tool from its health kit.
Still, the change is more than welcome.
A virtual assistant’s voice is the kind of gender diversity problem that’s easy to overlook; it may register low on your outrage-o-meter. But given the prevalence of virtual assistants in homes across the world—consumers will interact with voice assistants on over 8.4 billion devices by 2024, according to a 2020 forecast—the potential for female-voiced bots to reinforce harmful gender stereotypes has alarmed researchers.
Professor Safiya Umoja Noble, now at UCLA, has observed that virtual assistants produce a rise of command-based speech directed at women’s voices. Professor Calvin Lai of Washington University in St. Louis has said that the more we equate women with assistants, the more real, human women will be viewed as assistants—or penalized for not acting like one.
“Obedient and obliging machines that pretend to be women are entering our homes, cars and offices,” Saniye Gülser Corat, then director of gender equality at UNESCO said upon release of a 2019 report on sexism and robots that cites Noble and Lai. “Their hardwired subservience influences how people speak to female voices and models how women respond to requests and express themselves.” (The study is titled “I’d Blush If I Could,” after Siri’s one-time response to being called a gendered expletive.)
That report—nearly two years old now—recommended that the technology companies behind digital voice assistants “end the practice of making digital assistants female by default.” Apple is finally taking up that advice, but the other big players in the space—Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant—still automatically assume a feminine persona for English speakers.
The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe.
ALSO IN THE HEADLINES
- Strong support. In a new op-ed for Fortune, Lilly Ledbetter, the woman who fought for equal pay at an Alabama factory and gave the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act its name, argues that the Senate should confirm President Biden's nominee to lead the Justice Department's civil rights division. Ledbetter is throwing her support behind nominee Kristen Clarke because she believes Clarke will fight for workers who are discriminated against the way Ledbetter was. Fortune
- Call to action. A group of Black executives, including former Xerox chief Ursula Burns and Ariel Investments co-CEO Mellody Hobson, signed a letter calling on companies to speak out against restrictive voting laws being passed by Republicans in statehouses nationwide—including recent legislation in Georgia. They want businesses to publicly oppose the bills and use their money and lobbying power to fight against them. New York Times
- Helluva year. Helena Helmersson, No. 4 on Fortune's Most Powerful Women International list, became CEO of H&M in January 2020. Suffice it to say, it's been a rough 14 months. Not only has she faced the pandemic's tumult, she navigated a racist design scandal and is now dealing with consumer blowback in China over the retailer's months-old statement expressing concern about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang. Bloomberg
- Pass it on. New studies suggest that vaccination of pregnant mothers against COVID-19 also protects newborn babies from the virus. One study also found antibodies against the virus in the breast milk of women who received a vaccine. Wall Street Journal
MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Stacy-Marie Ishmael and Millie Tran stepped down as editorial director and chief product officer, respectively, of the Texas Tribune; both cited the personal toll of the past year in their decisions. L Catterton operating partner Sally Pofcher is the new CEO of children's brand Hanna Andersson; former Nike VP Pamela Neferkara joined the company's board. Food52 hired New York Times head of talent development Katasha Harley as SVP and head of people and culture. Fitness platform Tonal hired DePuy Synthes exec Shannon Crespin as COO; Nina Richardson will join Tonal's board. Laura Tuttle joins Boston Family Advisors as co-CIO and partner.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
- Take care. President Biden yesterday unveiled the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. The next major package from the White House following the passage of the coronavirus relief bill, this proposal includes $400 billion to support caregiving for aging or disabled people, including by increasing the wages of home health workers. CNN
- In transit. In a Fortune op-ed, San Francisco Mayor London Breed joins the mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, to argue that cities must invest in public infrastructure and transit to fully recover from the pandemic and its effect on working people. "These investments will protect the frontline workers who have risked their lives every day for the past year to protect us," the mayors write. Fortune
- The new normal. Will tourism return to Amsterdam post-pandemic? With visits already picking back up, city leaders like Mayor Femke Halsema are taking steps to ensure tourist traffic isn't the same as it once was—including through more regulation of Amsterdam's Red Light District. New York Times
ON MY RADAR
Biden marks International Transgender Day of Visibility with first-ever presidential proclamation of its kind CNN
Stacey Abrams: 3 ways for corporations to show they get what's at stake on voting rights USA Today
Demi Lovato's documentary is acutely aware of its image Vulture
"I can’t read a business book and then feel like I can just do what the author did; their lived experience is very different than mine."
-Naj Austin, the founder of Ethel's Club, the social club for people of color, on building a startup as a Black woman